York first Canadian university to give 'Dreamers' a chance at a degree

York University, in collaboration with FCJ Refugee Centre, is piloting the first project in Canada to allow undocumented students to study for a university degree. The program acknowledges the existence of a growing number of young people living in limbo after leaving high school.

Thousands of young people without legal status in Canada living in education limbo

Rosa is part of a group of 10 students with precarious refugee status to enter York University. CBC Toronto is not showing her face and is withholding her last name because her case is still being processed. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Like many so-called "Dreamers" in the U.S., Rosa grew up in constant fear of being deported from Texas back to El Salvador.

From the mid-to-late 2000s, before then-president Barack Obama introduced Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for people who had arrived illegally in the US as children, immigration raids were common and Rosa worried she might never get a chance to go to university.

Obama announced DACA in 2012. But just months before the policy change, the raids became so frequent that Rosa and her family fled to Canada and ended up in Toronto.

DACA was rescinded last year by President Trump, throwing the future of 800,000 undocumented young people in the U.S. in doubt. Unlike their American counterparts, many Canadian "dreamers" are documented because they've claimed refugee status.

CBC Toronto is not using Rosa's last name, because her immigration status in Canada is still precarious. But her dream of going to university finally became reality last fall when she was selected for a pilot project at York University — the first such program in Canada — allowing 10 young people whose immigration status is uncertain to study for a degree.

"At the time I was freaking out! You can ask anybody," said Rosa. "I was like, 'What if I didn't pass the interview?' But I did and now I'm here. And hopefully next semester I make an actual video."

At 23, Rosa is in her first year of film studies at York. She was referred to the program by FCJ Refugee Centre, Toronto's oldest agency assisting refugees, which collaborated on the pilot project with York University.

'Thousands of 'dreamers' in Canada'

Francisco Rico, co-founder of FCJ, says up to 30 young people come through the centre every week. At a weekly youth group, they form friendships and share fears about their uncertain future.

Two years ago, he approached York University to discuss the possibility of a pilot project for those young people.

"We hear a lot about dreamers in the States," Rico told CBC Toronto. "But we have thousands of dreamers in Canada and we never hear about them."

For York University president Rhonda Lenton, the pilot project is a chance to expand access to education for young people with precarious immigration status. (David Donnelly/CBC)

At York's new subway station, Rosa was surprised recently to be greeted by Rhonda Lenton, president of the university.

Hearing that a CBC crew was speaking to a couple of students from the pilot project for young people with precarious immigration status, Lenton asked if she could come along to introduce herself. Lenton hadn't personally met any of the first cohort, even though she'd made the pilot project a priority in her first year as president. 

It was hard to tell that morning who was more excited — Lenton to meet a couple of the new students, or the students to meet the university president.

Across Canada, Lenton estimates there could be anywhere from 200,000 to half a million young people in Canada, whose immigration status is uncertain — the precise number is hard to know — who have little chance of entering Canadian universities.

"One of the most important things we can give them," Lenton said, "is access to higher education while they're waiting to learn about their status."

While many Canadian schools, including those in the Toronto District School Board, have a "don't ask, don't tell policy" when it comes to students of uncertain immigration status, there's no such policy governing the next chapter of their lives after they graduate from high school.

Dwayne, a first year student at York University, is heading to a class in Canadian public policy. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The year after Rosa's family crossed into Canada at the border near Buffalo, Dwayne arrived at Toronto's Pearson airport with his mother. (We're not using Dwayne's real name either, because his refugee application is also still being processed.)

In 2011, Dwayne and his mother had fled a shelter in Namibia, where they say they were hiding from Dwayne's violently abusive father, after his father tracked them down and attacked his mother. In Toronto, they lived in another shelter for three weeks before finally ending up in a motel on Kingston Road, where Dwayne says most of the other residents are also refugee claimants from Africa. 

Dwayne says he'll never forget his first class at York. There weren't many courses available late last summer, by the time York University and FCJ finally settled the details of the pilot project, so Dwayne was nervous and unsure of his goals when he walked into a vast lecture hall for a third-year course in the history of Canadian public policy.

'Better not only yourself, but everyone'

But he was intrigued as he began learning how public policy evolved in Canada and how it contrasts with the U.S. approach.

York University's Rhonda Lenton asks Dwayne about his first year in a new pilot program, the only opportunity for young people with an uncertain immigration status to attend university in Canada. (David Donnelly/CBC)

"It's funny," said Dwayne, "because growing up, I never thought of being a public servant. But coming here and life whacking me left and right, I feel like public service is where I'm going."

Dwayne sees an opportunity in public service "to better not only yourself, but everyone" and he hopes that someday his own experiences will help him shape Canada's refugee process.

"You're in a state of limbo. That's the best word for it, because all you can do is wait."

York president Rhonda Lenton says the university is receiving more applications, not just from the U.S., but from around the world because of growing uncertainty about the future of immigration in the U.S. (David Donnelly/CBC)

One of Lenton's own goals as York's new president is to expand access to education at the university over the next five years. Until now, the only option for young people whose immigration status is uncertain was to apply as foreign students. The reality is that none of them can afford the tuition fees, which is many times more expensive than for Canadian students.

"Thinking about that access agenda for York," says Lenton, "a couple of populations really emerged as important: Indigenous students and those students with precarious immigrant status."

In the U.S., so-called Dreamers have become a major political force, taking to the streets and the headlines to protest after Trump ended the DACA program.

Canadian dreamers, on the other hand, are all but invisible, with York University the only major institution to acknowledge their growing presence. 

Funding for the first year of the small pilot came from a Pan Am Games grant from the city of Toronto to improve equity, access and human rights. That funding runs out in March and there's no guarantee the pilot project will become permanent. 

For now, Lenton says the university hopes to land a new grant from the Laidlaw Foundation to support its first 10 students for another two years. 


Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"